Lewis Hamilton has said he is finding it difficult to get the best out of this year’s Mercedes.
Car upgrades helped Hamilton’s team-mate George Russell to Mercedes’ best qualifying position of the season with fourth at the Spanish Grand Prix.
Hamilton, 0.119 seconds slower than Russell in sixth, said he was “really struggling with the car this year”.
“The car has potential to be third or fourth and I am not able to pull that out of the car,” Hamilton said.
“I just don’t feel that great in the sense of my driving and I’m working as hard as I can.
“I am still way off. I just struggle with confidence in the rear of the car. I don’t know how to get around that.
“I don’t know what I am going to do but I will keep trying to work hard and trying to figure it out. I just have no rear end in the car in the qualifying sessions.”
But Hamilton said he was “seeing hope” for his team at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya after a redesigned floor eliminated the most significant problem the the car has had so far – a high-speed bouncing created by aerodynamic disruption on the straights, known as ‘porpoising’.
“We have improved the car and stopped it from bouncing in certain areas,” Hamilton said.
“We don’t have the bouncing in the straight line. We still have some bouncing in Turns Three and Nine [the fastest corners in Spain] but the car’s a lot better.
“The [development] bits that have come have worked, so that means moving forwards more bits will come. I am looking forward to the next upgrades that we get so we can add some performance.”
Hamilton is tied three-all with Russell in their qualifying head-to-head after six races this season.
Russell said that he believed the car was potentially faster in the race than in qualifying.
“That was the best result we’ve had as a team this season,” he said. “We didn’t have the tyres in the right window. We were quickest in sector one and struggling in sector three. Ferrari looked extremely fast this weekend but we have a better race car than a qualifying car.”
The porpoising was preventing Mercedes from running the car as low as they wanted to for optimum performance, but the modifications in Spain meant they could begin to run it lower and access more of the potential they believe the car to have.
Russell said: “Through the corners it wasn’t fundamentally different, but we just had more grip. We could get the car closer to the ground.
“We lost a lot of overall downforce to get rid of the porpoising. The car is not quite as quick as we’d like, to be able to fight the guys in front. But this is our baseline and we can build on that and find a lot more performance.”
Can Mercedes race at the front?
Russell said he was optimistic he could compete with the Ferrari drivers for a place on the podium in Sunday’s race.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc took pole position, recovering from a spin on his first lap in the final part of qualifying to leapfrog from 10th to first with his final run, ahead of his title rival Max Verstappen’s Red Bull and the second Ferrari of Carlos Sainz.
Sergio Perez’s second Red Bull splits the two Mercedes in fifth place.
Russell said: “Max looks much quicker than the rest but we have a real shot against the Ferrari and unless they have found some gains overnight we will be in the mix with them.”
The 24-year-old’s comments were based on the long runs completed by the teams in second practice on Friday.
Verstappen, who has won the past two races to eat significantly into Leclerc’s championship points lead, had an advantage on average of more than 0.5 seconds a lap over the rest of the field, while the Mercedes were quicker than the Ferraris.
However, after struggling with heavy tyre usage on Friday, Ferrari made set-up changes before Saturday and Leclerc said they had improved the car significantly.
“It is going to be very difficult because Red Bull is very strong in tyre management and it is our weakness since two races,” said Leclerc, who leads Verstappen by 19 points.
“It was a big weakness yesterday. This morning we changed completely the car and the feeling was much better in the long run, but we were the only ones on track doing long runs so we have no [comparison] with Red Bull. The feeling is there but now we still have to see compared to Red Bull during the race.”
He added: “I am in a strong position to start the race but we have been struggling with tyres in the last two races and Max is just behind, and if we don’t manage to use the tyres well we will lose the win.”
Verstappen said he had been impressed by Leclerc’s pace in race trim on Saturday.
“They improved their car quite a bit in terms of tyre management because what I saw from them in P3 was very strong,” the world champion said.
Heat means a tough, unpredictable race
Temperatures are high in Spain, well over 30C, and all the drivers are expecting a difficult race with tyres a major concern and likely at least two pit stops as a result.
“It is going to be one of the most challenging races we face all season,” Russell said. “Multiple pit stops, I expect, and it will be challenging to get the tyres to last to the end, but that offers opportunity. It is not going to be straightforward.”
The cars have been changed this year with the idea of making overtaking easier, but Sainz said the heat this weekend would likely mean passing remained a challenge at a track where it has always been notoriously difficult.
“Following has been a bit more difficult around this track this weekend than lately,” Sainz said. “I think it’s the heat, and the tyres are suffering quite a lot from the heat. Every lap you do behind a car is a lap you overheat the tyres and you have less grip. It’s a very hot Barcelona and it is not going to be easy to pass.”
Although statistics suggest the winner will almost certainly come from the front row, Verstappen said it would be wrong to assume that would be the case.
“It can be important [to lead the first lap], but also not really,” said Verstappen, who took his maiden victory in Barcelona six years ago.
“In 2016, I was fourth after the start. Last year I took the lead but still didn’t win. You need good pace and good tyre management.
“It’s hard on the tyres with the high-speed cornering. If there is opportunity, you go for it, and if not, you don’t. You settle and wait for the opportunity and hope the package you have is competitive enough to fight for the win.”
Verstappen also had to make changes from Friday to Saturday to improve the car’s one-lap pace but he said he did not believe they would have compromised the car for the race.
“What we improved over one lap won’t hurt our long run,” he said. “It was just the way we balanced the car. There was just a bit more potential for the one-lap performance – we definitely didn’t do that well yesterday and this morning, I think.
“It was a bit more tricky for us to really find a connected car and we have that. When you find it in qualifying it’s also better for the long run.”